This week, Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit organization focused on investigative journalism, published a story which states administrators at Epic Charter Schools have been “allowing, encouraging or pressuring teachers to manipulate students’ enrollment for years in order to improve employees’ bonus pay, according to at least seven former teachers.”
The story quotes seven former teachers who said administrators are breaking the law and trying to mislead the public.
At least that’s the gist of the story.
The truth, however, is far different.
To sort through everything, Epic asked two long-time Oklahoma journalists, M. Scott Carter and Phil Cross, to fact check the Oklahoma Watch story. Both men are part of Epic’s new Epic News Network and have, combined, more than 60 years’ experience as journalists.
And while it is true they are employed by Epic, they were asked to do this because both are known to be tough, but fair journalists who teach their students to find facts and follow a story wherever the facts may take them.
Both Carter and Cross have written or worked for Oklahoma Watch and believe strongly in its mission and work. They also believe in ethical reporting.
At no point were they told what to say. Both were allowed to operate with journalistic independence. When they had a question about facts or figures, they went through the same request process as any journalist would.
To that end, Carter and Cross are documenting their concerns about this piece and pulling the curtain back on the reality of how they watched the story process unfold behind-the-scenes. They are providing the reader information and facts that Oklahoma Watch gathered or could have gathered, which in many cases directly contradicts Oklahoma Watch’s assertions and which were left out of the story. Carter and Cross’s comments are in bold.
From the Oklahoma Watch story:
Administrators at Epic Charter Schools have been allowing, encouraging or pressuring teachers to manipulate students’ enrollment for years in order to improve employees’ bonus pay, according to at least seven former teachers.
So, right off the bat, we have a misleading statement.
Editors and news managers always taught us to be specific. The phrase ‘administrators at Epic…’ implies that ALL Epic’s administrators are evil people hell bent on destruction of Oklahoma’s public education system.
That’s not the case.
How many administrators? The story never says.
It does, however, quote seven former teachers, of which four were fired by Epic for poor performance – something we’ll address later.
The story says those administrators either ‘encouraged, pressured or allowed,’ but doesn’t document how that conspiracy was pulled off, and doesn’t include any responses for any of the administrators who are supposed to be guilty of breaking the law.
…according to at least seven former teachers.
Four of the teachers allege the practices in legal notices stating they intend to sue Epic after being terminated last year. Three others made similar claims in interviews with Oklahoma Watch.
‘At least?’ Again, they’re implying there are more, but they only interview seven…and they don’t go into a great deal about those seven. Hmmmm, we were always taught to vet information AND the sources that provided it.
What should have been included in the white space between these two sentences is that Oklahoma Watch has been told for at least a week that a legal response would be available on Thursday, June 27, 2019. Yet, Oklahoma Watch pushed this out the Wednesday evening before knowing the credibility of nearly every key source would be damaged in 24 hours.
Teacher bonuses were dangled like “a carrot” and used to push for withdrawals of low-performing students, the teachers said.
This sentence contains more fiction than a Steven King novel. Performance pay is NOT, nor has it ever been, used to push for the withdrawal of low performing students. You will not find that information from Epic until much later in the article, and no written evidence or documentation is provided to back up such a potentially slanderous claim.
If those students rejoined the virtual school’s rolls, they were still considered a part-year student and weren’t included in accountability measures like the school report cards released in February. Students who enroll late are also part-year.
More than half of Epic’s 20,000 students in June 2018 were enrolled part-year, according to state Education Department data
At no point in the 2017-18 school year did Epic actually have 20,000 students at any given time. This is due to high mobility of students coming in and out of the program. Students came in and out during the year. Full academic year (FAY) and non full academic year (NFAY) categorizations are made by the federal government, not any individual school district.
Epic received mostly Cs on report cards, but more than four in 10 student tests were not factored into the grades. That’s 7,423 exams that didn’t count in 2017-18, the latest year for which state data is available.
Oklahoma Watch either doesn’t understand the data or has chosen to intentionally misrepresent it. The facts are students take multiple tests in the various grades where state tests are given. Only 8 percent of those were tested, had their tests removed from the final school average due to being classified as non full academic year, which is in line with other school districts. Oklahoma Watch was provided this data.
However, the entire number of students tested who were not full academic year either due to truancy or because they enrolled after the 20th day of school was only 3,836. Oklahoma Watch, either out of ignorance or a more nefarious reason, has presented a total that double, or triple counts the same students.
Epic had the highest percentage of student tests excluded than any other school in the state except alternative schools, which have high mobility due to their focus on students at risk of dropping out.
This is a fairly accurate sentence, except it gives a pass to alternative schools while completely ignoring the fact Epic is very much like an alternative school. Alternative schools within a public school give students a second chance, Epic is sometimes the third chance for students when they do not perform in a brick and mortar school’s alternative program.
If Oklahoma Watch is unfamiliar with the challenges students face today, we would encourage them to visit one of the state’s alternative schools, or simply talk to the Department of Education about why the demand for training on how to educate trauma-involved students has skyrocketed in recent years.
What is embarrassing to journalism is claiming it is OK for alternative schools to have high mobility, but not a charter school.
More Than Half of Epic Students Were Not Counted As Full-Year
An Epic spokeswoman denies the school allows or pushes teachers or principals to withdraw students for bonus pay or accountability gains. She provided data showing only 8 percent of tested students in 2017-18 were withdrawn because of a gap in enrollment, saying it showed Epic didn’t try to manipulate test accountability.
To simply make this statement without putting it in context is poor reporting, poor journalism and unfair. In fact, Epic officials attempted to explain this to the Oklahoma Watch reporter but it was ignored.
But three former teachers contacted independently by Oklahoma Watch described similar withdrawal practices while working for the school. The intent-to-sue notices, provided to Epic by a Norman law firm, say the school’s bonuses drove decisions on student withdrawals and other academic choices involving students.
We are not sure what “contacted independently” means, other than the possibility the lawyer for some disgruntled ex-employees provided their clients’ phone numbers to a reporter. However, we have questions about this contact. Current and former Epic teachers told us they were contacted by this reporter and when they said they had not experienced what the reporter asked them about, their statements weren’t used.
The reporter, even with the intent to publish and identify her sources, declined to even ask for employment verification or information about the termination of these employees from Epic. Epic had multiple conversations with Oklahoma Watch, including a call to Executive Editor David Fritze informing them we would soon be able to provide information about the reasons for termination of employees, but could not just release random data without a specific names being attached to a request.
The four former teachers filing the claim notices say they were fired for pushing back against pressure to manipulate their student rosters. They say the school still owes them all or part of the bonus payment, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars
Claim notices are a great tool for reporting. However, when those claims allege potential criminal wrongdoing it is a reporter’s job to figure out exactly what happened. Oklahoma Watch was told multiple times, in no uncertain terms, they could receive a copy of the legal response which details the reasons for termination. Oklahoma Watch chose to publish this article 24 hours prior to the time they knew that information would be available.
This article, and the tort claim notices, provide no documentation that bonus pay was withheld.
Oklahoma Watch never asked Epic anything about bonus pay structure or any of the claims about unpaid bonuses. If you make an accusation, ethical journalism requires a reporter to ask for a response to that accusation. That did not happen. An incendiary accusation is made without giving the other party a chance to respond.
“There was always a carrot dangling,” said former Epic teacher Amanda Ensley, who is not among the four who have taken legal action.
This is called performance pay. It is a topic that has been debated by lawmakers and policy makers for years in Oklahoma. Some people embrace it, other organizations do not. Epic’s model is to pay teachers based on how well they perform. It is clearly stated from the job posting through every level of employment status.
Withdrawing was easy to do, she said. Teachers had the ability to withdraw students themselves from their own computers with “a click of a button,” said Ensley, who resigned in January.
Then parents could, and often did, quickly re-enroll, the teachers say.
Just because something is easy does not mean it is encouraged. In fact, withdrawing students is very serious and there are not only policies, but state laws, that police this procedure.
However, it is not “easy” to go through the withdrawal process. All it takes is a tip-toe through the publicly available Epic Student Handbook to find there is actually a lot of paperwork and effort that goes into withdrawing a student for truancy. There are performance improvement plans that have to be filed to re-enroll a student. Withdrawing a student is easier than performing kidney surgery, but is not as simple as clicking a button. The official policy is below:
“I felt it was very unethical, at the least, for teachers to be able to withdraw students so easily, especially when money is involved,” said Angie Wren, who taught for Epic in 2016.
Shelly Hickman, a spokeswoman for Epic, said withdrawing students for low academic performance is forbidden by the organization and would be grounds for dismissal. No former employee has ever made a complaint to Epic’s human resources department describing they were pressured by a principal to withdraw low-performing students, she said. Teachers told Oklahoma Watch not all principals pressured them to withdraw students.
Actually, Oklahoma Watch was told the exact opposite. Those accounts were not included in the story. Some current and former employees told us they felt harassed when they provided details that contradicted the pre-conceived outcome of the story.
These screenshots are also an open record:
The school does have a policy to withdraw students automatically when they complete fewer than 31 assignments during a nine-week period, considering these students “truant.” Traditional school districts typically only withdraw students for missing 10 consecutive days of school, though students can also lose credit and be reported to the district attorney for excessive absences, according to a review of several district policies by Oklahoma Watch.
Perhaps a more accurate way to word this sentence is Epic is following the state law for determining truancy for virtual charter schools. To make it sound like Epic is doing something out of the ordinary is misleading, at best.
Epic’s policy was implemented in 2018, following a change in state law requiring virtual schools to count attendance one of three different ways. Data from 2018-19 is not yet available. The seven teachers left Epic before the most recent school year, so it’s unclear if changes have been made.
Epic was following what the current law says a year ago, but now Oklahoma Watch doesn’t know if Epic is still following the law that they were already following before the law changed? This is absurd. Even more absurd is the fact that Oklahoma Watch again makes an allegation that Epic may not be following the law, but did not bother to ask Epic about.
Lure of the Bonus
Epic recruits teachers with offers of a potential six-figure paycheck. But up to half of that compensation comes in the form of the bonus — an amount so significant teachers talk about buying a car with it.
This is false and Oklahoma Watch either knows it is false or failed to attend a basic statistics course where they explained how averages work.
Epic does recruit teachers with a promise if they work hard and do well they will earn more than they could in a traditional school district.
Epic advertises the average full-time teacher salary is $64,005 a year after the bonus is factored into the equation.
For those who similarly skipped the math class where they taught this, averages are determined by adding all the variables together and dividing by the number of variables.
That means some salaries are much larger and some salaries are much smaller. The average is in the middle (but don’t confuse that with the median or mode, though those concepts are also covered in the same math class as averages). An EPIC teacher can explain it for you.
Epic does say the highest salary for a returning teacher is $116,974. That is for a returning teacher, so anyone assuming a first-year teacher could make that salary is either lying or woefully unprepared to enter the education field.
A large part of that bonus is based on the academic performance of “non-truant,” or full-year, students.
If you read down in the Oklahoma Watch article, you will find more evidence of math problems. Oklahoma Watch’s own numbers indicate that bonuses provide just the same amount of financial incentive to make sure students are attending and are not truant and are performing well academically.
Wren, who has also taught at brick-and-mortar schools, said she felt like Epic wanted her to withdraw students who were completing assignments – in other words, weren’t “absent” – but had been identified as not expected to pass the spring tests.
“My principal would instruct me to give additional remediation assignments and mandatory online homework-help sessions that made it almost impossible for the kids to keep up with,” she said. “When students couldn’t keep up with the extra things assigned, my principal began pressuring me to withdraw them for truancy.”
She pushed back, saying that based on the school’s expectations, all of her more than 30 students should be withdrawn. That part of the bonus is based on full-year students only, he told her, indicating she only needed one full-year student who would score well. A document outlining how bonuses are calculated confirms that portion of the bonus is based on full-year students only.
Documents? Emails? Or just a phone conversation? How did she push back? And again, if she was that concerned by what was happening why not report the problem to those over her principal or even State Department of Education who could have addressed the issue?
Also, we were curious if this type of practice was possible at Epic. We found out it is possible to have just one full-academic-year student on a roster by the end of the year and that would calculate the bonus. However, with just a single phone call we discovered that these situations trigger a red flag and are individually reviewed by Epic administrators to determine if policy and procedures were followed. It is a process known as “checks and balances.” Just because you can dream up a scheme that sounds like a way to game the system does not mean you get away with that scheme.
How Epic’s Bonus Pay Worked
This is one of those things where you either laugh, or cry over the state of this story. This is actually the wrong year’s bonus schedule. Oklahoma Watch published the 2018-2019 bonus information. Had Oklahoma Watch asked for the 2017-18 structure they would have discovered the pay structure was actually:
- Retention – 25%
- Academic Performance – 35%
- Test Participation – 20%
- Attendance – 20%
If a teacher has 22 students, but only 12 are full-year, the passing rate of the 12 is used to calculate the potential bonus. Teachers were eligible for hundreds of dollars per student based on their test performance.
This is accurate. Teacher bonuses for academic performance are based on how many of those students are full academic year students. However, as the math indicates, there is a greater financial incentive to make certain students are attending (and not truant), participating in testing and doing well enough they want to come back or graduate from Epic.
That is the “carrot” behind performance pay. Provide an employee with a reward for doing excellent work, and in this case, reward teachers for being great teachers.
Not all principals pressured teachers like this, Wren said. Her first principal never mentioned withdrawing students unless they stopped logging in and stopped replying to her, and never discussed bonus money, she said. Wren resigned in January 2017.
To predict student test performance, Epic uses an assessment called the NWEA MAP Growth, which is also used by traditional school districts. But at Epic there’s a hyper-focus on it, teachers say, coupled with teachers’ ability to withdraw students themselves and the financial incentives.
Trina Menzie, who worked at Epic in 2017, said teachers were asked to submit monthly reports detailing which students were “red, yellow or green” based on the MAP test’s predictions and which students were full-year and which were not.
Stop the presses. Schools rely on data. Education is data. Every school tracks performance and has intervention programs when students fall behind. The State Department of Education logs tens-of-thousands of lines of data for schools all over the state. But Epic, oh Epic has the gall to color code that data.
“It’s all data-based and ‘who’s weighing you down,’” she said. “It creates a culture of fear where you’re afraid to keep kids that are low performers on your roster.”
Since its inception, Epic has had more than 2,000 employees. There are currently around 800 teachers. Many teachers return every year to teach for Epic. Is it based on money? Maybe, but if they are making a wage higher than a traditional school district it means they are impacting student lives.
The intent-to-sue notices sent to Epic in May and June by four former teachers who allege they were fired for resisting pressure to manipulate their student rosters. The claim notices were filed by attorneys for Ryan Aispuro, Shaunna Atchley and Jason Deskin, who began teaching at Epic in July 2017, and Noelle Waller, who joined Epic in November 2013. All were fired in July 2018.
The last line is telling. “All were fired.”
In her claim notice, Atchley said she pushed back against her principal, Kristie Surface, who said “she needed to dump all of her students that reduced bonuses,” according to the notice. She also said Surface singled out one student for withdrawal, calling the student a “waste of time.”
Atchley said the principal explained that “this student did not deserve Epic and that Epic was free to pick and choose what students it wanted.”
Oklahoma Watch attempted to reach Surface through her social media account, but Surface has not responded.
Oklahoma Watch published no documents to support this. Nor were they able to get a response from the principal being accused. Apparently, the reporter only tried to reach the principal through Social Media – according to their story – which is telling and an example of poor journalism.
As we have previously mentioned, had Oklahoma Watch been interested in the facts, they would have waited 24 hours to publish this article in order to get the legal response that tells the true reason for the terminations.
Again, another open record which is being provided to Oklahoma Watch as well and how they handle the documents will be telling.
According to Epic’s legal response, “the reasons that she was terminated include, but are not limited to, her failure to comply with the Employment Agreement, failure to comply with the Employee Handbook, inappropriate conduct, and poor communication. In fact, Employee’s relationship with her pet monkey, Virgil, resulted in her not fulfilling her work duties, such as meeting with her students regularly as she brought Virgil to a state testing site without authorization. This later information is shared with you, in part, to ensure that as officers of the court, you are able to make an informed decision about the merits of any legal action prior to such filing by conducting a reasonable inquiry in compliance with 12 O.S. $2011(B).”
Oh, well that sounds like….wait…MONKEY?
When your job requires you to meet with students in public places, not many are monkey friendly. When your boss asks you not to bring your pet (not therapy) monkey to state testing it is good advice to follow.
State testing is serious business. Students need to focus on the test, not on the monkey in the room.
Waller’s claim notice describes how Epic used results from benchmarking tests to categorize students into red, yellow and green depending on their achievement and aptitude for testing. Epic’s enforcement of truancy standards was lax for yellow and green students but rigorously applied to red students, the document states.
“There was always discussion of … which students you should be able to push over the hump and which students you should withdraw and pull back in as not full academic year,” Waller said.
Let’s play another round of “what do the documents that Oklahoma Watch wouldn’t wait 24 hours to read say?”
According to Epic’s legal response, “Regarding Employee, the reasons that she was not rehired include, but are not limited to, her failure to comply with the Employment Agreement, failure to comply with the Employee Handbook, inappropriate conduct, parent complaints and habitual poor performance. In fact, Employee was reprimanded for “unprofessional and rude” behavior and Employee admitted to “going thru quite a lot of personal issues. Additionally, she brought a weapon inside a site designated for state testing of Epic students; and, disobeyed a directive to not bring the weapon again by returning with it the next day. This later information is shared with you, in part, to ensure that as officers of the court, you are able to make an informed decision about the merits of any legal action prior to such filing by conducting a reasonable inquiry in compliance with 12 O.S. $2011(B).”
Two other administrators named in the claim notices, then-principals Amanda Lashley and David Weston, could not be reached for comment. Former principal Jodie Shupe, now Epic’s managing director of instruction, when reached by phone, declined to comment.
This report leaves out the details of the phone call made to Shupe in which the reporter implied Shupe was being personally sued. Again, Shupe followed procedure and notified the school’s spokeswoman, Shelly Hickman, who Oklahoma Watch had already told they would not identify the names of the sources named in this article.
It should be noted every school, and company for that matter, we are aware of has a policy that designates who is authorized to talk to the media.
Epic did not provide a detailed response to requests on Monday for comments on the claim notices filed by the four former teachers. The school’s attorney is expected to issue a response soon.
The reporter was told several days ago the response would be released on Thursday. Saying it did not provide a detailed response on Monday is wildly misleading, since they were told – on the record – when the response would be released. Yet another attempt to try and make Epic look like it’s hiding something.
Most Epic students excluded from accountability ratings in 2017-18 were given that status because they were late enrollees.
Oklahoma public schools are not held responsible in report cards for the performance of students who enroll after the 20th day of the school year. In 2017-18, nearly a third of Epic’s 19,918 students were late enrollees, according to state data.
This is perhaps the most disgusting of the accusations lobbed at Epic. Would those critics of Epic have the school refuse to provide an education to the single mothers who had to drop out of school to give birth and now can’t get child care to go to a traditional school?
Should the child who has been bullied to the point of considering suicide be forced to endure daily harassment until they see no point in living anymore because there is an arbitrary date when they can leave to get an education free from bullying?
Should a student fighting cancer be denied a public education because they are too sick to come to school?
Hickman, of Epic, said the school attracts a lot of latecomers because many students in traditional schools become dissatisfied mid-year due to bullying, school safety concerns, medical reasons, lack of success in school or referral by their school.
“We make no apologies for being accessible to all Oklahoma families any time they need our services,” Hickman said.
Epic pursues those students. Oklahoma’s three other virtual schools only allow enrollment during certain times of the year. Epic admits students year-round and markets to new students well after the school year begins. It also offers rewards for referrals of new students. Epic doesn’t receive per-pupil state aid for late enrollees, but they have helped drive its rapid year-over-year growth. Part of teachers’ bonuses is based on how many of their students are retained by Epic the next year.
Fun fact, traditional public schools also send out information to families that live in their district who may go to other schools in an effort to get them to return, as well as advertise bond issues.
Epic’s marketing includes pitches to students to enroll well into the school year – in this case a March 2019 Facebook post to enroll for both 2018-19 and 2019-20.
When legislation this year threatened Epic’s ability to enroll year-round, school leaders fought back. In an email sent to students’ parents, Epic called Senate Bill 148 “the most damaging legislation to Epic families.”
Public school officials lobby for and against legislation all the time. Look at the ruckus stirred up this year by Senate Bill 441.
The bill, co-authored by Rep. Derrel Fincher, R-Bartlesville, and Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, would have created two annual enrollment periods for all virtual schools, while still allowing exceptions for emergencies.
After Epic’s email went out, Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, was one lawmaker hit by a flood of concerns from Epic supporters.
Well this has to be a factual error, because this seems to imply there are thousands of parents who are happy their children are getting an education at Epic, when clearly that’s not possible in the world according to Oklahoma Watch
“It was intense,” Rosecrants said. “It was, full on, make sure this never gets heard.”
This too is outrageous. How dare citizens of Oklahoma contact a lawmaker about a piece of legislation that would impact them. The brazenness.
If Oklahoma Watch was curious they might consider asking lawmakers how many times they’ve spoken to superintendents and other public school leaders. Epic administrators are far from the only ones who are talking with lawmakers about issues that impact education.
Fincher said he decided to lay the bill over after speaking with Ben Harris, who founded Epic with David Chaney, but plans to revive it in 2020. Fincher said he’s looking for evidence about the magnitude of virtual schools’ student “churn.”
So there you have it. An inaccurate, misleading story filled with holes that was written to imply that officials at Epic were cooking numbers, breaking the law and attempting to mislead the public. This is not correct. Our analysis includes supporting documents – all public records – and records that Oklahoma Watch’s own reporter already had access to.
We understand that as a large, innovative public school district we should be open to scrutiny and questions. But the response to those questions should also be included. In many cases it wasn’t or inaccurate (or just plain wrong) information was used.
But we’ll let you decide for yourself.